Tag Archives: game design

Universal design

22 Nov

Today I encountered an interesting statement: “Good design is universal.”

I found that I both strongly agreed and strongly disagreed with this assertion which, as you can imagine, was a confusing frame of mind. On the one hand, designers have a skill set that they should be able to apply to any game, regardless of platform or target audience. On the other hand, I would never feel comfortable designing a game for, say, 5-year old girls without doing extensive research on what makes young girls tick.

How can good design be both universal and not universal at the same time? After rolling this around in my brain for a while (sometimes I can’t get these things out of my head) I hit upon a distinction that felt right. Design principles are universal. These principles are grounded in human psychology and the form of games as a media, and can and should be applied or at least considered in the design of every game. Concepts like “the rules of a game should be internally consistent” are universal because they apply to the design of any and all games.

However, design does not take place in a vacuum.  Design is a service industry – we create products for specific people, in particular places, in our precise moment in history.  Good design requires an understanding of the context.  Just as it’s important to understand the universal design principles, it’s equally important to understand the unique facets of the player group that you’re designing for. Let’s take an example from visual design. My background is in art so I have a pretty solid understanding of color theory; I’m familiar with the different types of color schemes, and how the temperature and value of a color can cause it to pop forward or recede. I understand the universal principles of color theory. When it comes to designing, say, a print advertisement for a company in India, this simply isn’t enough. I also need to understand the context of this design task.  For example, it would be particularly relevant in this case to know that the color white is frequently worn to funerals in some Eastern cultures like India. My knowledge of design principles may tell me that white would be the perfect color for this project but, given my specific knowledge of the context of the Indian culture, I may need to think twice about that.

My point is this – design is both universal and not universal. It is crucial to understand the universal principles of design, but it is equally important to always remember the context – the specific needs and qualities of your target audience.  It is our job as game designers to produce an amazing gameplay experience, but that experience is not possible without a player. When we forget that player, we are not holding up our end of the deal, and can’t expect to be be able to design for target populations that are different from ourselves.


On Lickable Design

14 Nov

I stumbled across a fantastic quote this week in my current book, Design for Hackers.  Chapter 4 talks about technology and culture and references the Aqua interface of Mac OS X, notable for it’s beautiful styling and complete departure from previous graphical interfaces.  When Steve Jobs introduced Mac OSX at the Macworld Expo in 2000 he shared some of the design inspiration behind the look, remarking “One of the design goals was when you saw it, you wanted to lick it.”  Apparently, one of the design inspirations behind Aqua was candy. Jonathan Ives, Apple’s design lead, put in many hours at a candy factory searching for inspiration.

This quote struck me for a number of reasons, though I can honestly say that I’ve never designed a game with the goal of lick-ability.  There’s the inspiring idea that we can look for design inspiration anywhere, that even in the sweet stickiness of a candy factory one can make connections to the hard plastic and metals of a computing product.  Then there’s the uniqueness.  In game design we too frequently see games that are just another copy-cat version of the future, or yet another post-apocalyptic game.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with these genres but they’ve been done, and when they are redone without some unique flavor they fall flat.

What really struck me about this quote, however, was who the design was talking to.  Steve Jobs did not literally want people to lick his computers.  That would just be unsanitary.  He didn’t even necessarily want them to think about licking the computer, or have any kind of conscious notion of connecting the computer with candy.  The design was talking to the customer’s subconscious to create a visceral response.  So what, precisely, is a visceral response?  Merriam-Webster defines “visceral” as:

1. felt in or as if in the internal organs of the body

2. not intellectual

3. dealing with crude or elemental emotions

4. of, relating to, or located on or among the viscera

A visceral response is literally a response of the organs.  The visceral nervous system, more commonly known as the autonomic nervous system or ANS, is a part of the nervous system that functions mostly below conscious control, regulating digestion, heart rate, sexual arousal, and perspiration among other things.  When you see a snake and your heart rate jumps and you lurch back, that fight or flight response is your automatic nervous system.  When your pupils dilate in response to a bright light, that’s the autonomic nervous system.  And when you start to salivate at the sight of a delicious morsel of candy, that is also the autonomic nervous system.

Design should not just speak to our head.  It should speak to our eyes, our mouths, our stomachs, and our hearts.  A person’s visceral response to a product should be designed just as purposefully as their conscious, articulable response.  Then maybe, just maybe, you might get a lickable product.